One thing is certain when it comes to getting ready for college entrance exams: any preparation is better than none.

And there are several ways to prepare for the SAT and ACT. Students can practice on their own with books or computer programs, work with private tutors, and take special courses to get ready for an exam—there are even online courses available to students.

"There's no one solution that's going to work best," says Amy Seeley, a Cleveland-area test-prep tutor.

However, there are factors that may determine what kind of test prep options to consider. Three main factors determine how your teen should get ready for the SAT or ACT are:

  • Cost. How much can you afford to spend? Books and online programs are cheap or free. Private tutors who work with your child on his specific strengths and weaknesses charge more than teachers who lead a class of several students.
  • How your student learns. Does your teen learn better while studying on her own or with a group? "Every kid is different and you have to consider their learning style," says Bill McClintick, director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy, a college-prep school in Pennsylvania.
  • The target score. Does your child need to add another 10 points to his SAT score to compete for a big scholarship? Or does he want to improve a disappointingly low score by 200 points? Seeley notes that if your teen's score is low to begin with, he's unlikely to be able to make up the gap by himself. 

Beyond that, there are also factors that may determine what kind of test preparation make work best for your teen. Different types of test prep work for differently for different students. Here are the benefits of each.

Self-paced Prep

  • The makers of the ACT and SAT publish books and online programs to help students study for the tests. Other companies also produce guides, Web-based programs and smartphone apps for test prep. Seeley says teens who study on their own should do at least some of their prep with hard-copy study guides because the tests themselves are given with paper and pencil.
  • Not only is self-guided test prep inexpensive or even free, McClintick says, it's a good option for students who dread the idea of a course. "For some kids, sitting in a classroom with someone droning on is just deadly," he says. Self-paced test prep works well if students make a regular study schedule – even two hours a week is good – and stick to it for two or three months.
  • A major drawback of studying alone is that it's hard for students to spot their weaknesses, Seeley says. And self-paced test prep doesn't work for teens who lack motivation or time-management skills.

Group Classes

  • A test-prep course makes sense for a teen who needs the structure that comes with going to a class at the same time every week. Seeley says shy, quiet students can learn from being in a group. "They may not pose the question they have, but someone else does," she says.
  • Steve Straka, a test-prep tutor who claims high-end clients in the Los Angeles area, says many courses are designed for students who want to improve average or below-average scores. If this sounds like your teen, a course makes sense. "The big companies are pretty good," he says. "You know the person's gone through some sort of training program and they'll teach you what they know."

Private Tutors

  • Hiring a tutor is the most expensive way to get ready for a college entrance exam. Tutors offer individual attention and are usually good at what they do, Straka says, adding that successful, experienced tutors often work on their own for individual clients.
  • Your child will be the only one at each session, so a tutor can tailor each lesson for the areas where he needs the most help. Private tutors also offer extra accountability, since students can't hide if they didn't do their test-prep homework. 
  • This one-on-one attention might be just the edge your student needs to be in the running for an acceptance letter from that big-name university or a top scholarship. And Seeley notes that if your child earns a high score and a bigger financial aid offer after you hire a tutor for him, the tutor has paid off many times over.

Students generally understand how important it is to do as well as they can on the SAT and ACT, McClintick says, and they often know themselves well enough to know how they'll best be able to prepare for the tests. If you decide to sign up for a course or hire a tutor, can help you find one that's right for you.

But it's also important for teens to remember that a test score is just one piece of a college application. Getting a less-than-ideal score doesn't spell doom. "Scores aren't everything," Straka says. "There's so many good schools that you're going to get in somewhere."

To search for test prep courses in your area, check out our interactive resource center here.